I was walking into the forest with my grandmother one morning. It was so beautiful and peaceful. I was only four years old, a tiny little one. And I saw something very strange—a straight line across the road. I was so curious that I went over to it; I just wanted to touch it. Then my grandmother screamed, so loud. I remember it so strongly. It was a huge snake.
That was the first moment in my life that I really felt fear—but I had no idea what I should be afraid of. Actually, it was my grandmother’s voice that frightened me. And then the snake slithered away, fast.
It is incredible how fear is built into you, by your parents and others surrounding you. You’re so innocent in the beginning; you don’t know.
I come from a dark place. Postwar Yugoslavia, the mid-1940s to the mid-’70s. A Communist dictatorship, Marshal Tito in charge. Perpetual shortages of everything, drabness everywhere. There is something about Communism and socialism—it’s a kind of aesthetic based on pure ugliness. The Belgrade of my childhood didn’t even have the monumentalism of Red Square in Moscow. Everything was somehow secondhand. As though the leaders had looked through the lens of someone else’s Communism and built something less good and less functional and more fucked-up.
I always remember the communal spaces—they would be painted this dirty green color, and there were these naked bulbs that gave off a gray light that kind of shadowed the eyes. The combination of the light and the color of the walls made everyone’s skin yellowish-greenish, like they were liver-sick. Whatever you did, there would be a feeling of oppression, and a little bit of depression.
Whole families lived in these massive, ugly apartment blocks. Young people could never get an apartment for themselves, so every flat would contain several generations—the grandmother and grandfather, the newlywed couple, and then their children. It created unavoidable complications, all these families jammed into very small places. The young couples had to go to the park or the cinema to have sex. And forget about ever trying to buy anything new or nice.
A joke from Communist times: A guy retires, and for having been such an exceptional worker, he is awarded, instead of a watch, a new car, and they tell him at the office he’s very lucky—he’ll get his car on such and such a date, in twenty years.
“Morning or afternoon?” the guy asks.
“What do you care?” the official asks him.
“I have the plumber coming the same day,” the guy says.
My family didn’t have to endure all this. My parents were war heroes—they fought against the Nazis with the Yugoslav partisans, Communists led by Tito—and so after the war they became important members of the Party, with important jobs. My father was appointed to Marshal Tito’s elite guard; my mother directed an institute that supervised historic monuments and acquired artwork for public buildings. She was also the director of the Museum of Art and Revolution. Because of this, we had many privileges. We lived in a big apartment in the center of Belgrade—Makedonska Street, number 32. A large, old-fashioned 1920s building, with elegant ironwork and glass, like an apartment building in Paris. We had a whole floor, eight rooms for four people—my parents, my younger brother, and me—which was unheard of in those days. Four bedrooms, a dining room, a huge salon (our name for the living room), a kitchen, two bathrooms, and a maid’s room. The salon had shelves full of books, a black grand piano, and paintings all over the walls. Because my mother was the director of the Museum of the Revolution, she could go to painters’ studios and buy their canvases—paintings influenced by Cézanne and Bonnard and Vuillard, also many abstract works.
When I was young, I thought our flat was the height of luxury. Later I discovered it had once belonged to a wealthy Jewish family, and had been confiscated during the Nazi occupation. Later I also realized the paintings my mother put in our apartment were not very good. Looking back, I think—for these and other reasons—our home was really a horrible place.
My mother, Danica, and my father, Vojin—known as Vojo—had a great romance during World War II. An amazing story—she was beautiful, he was handsome, and each saved the other’s life. My mother was a major in the army, and she commanded a squad on the front lines that was responsible for finding wounded partisans and bringing them to safety. But once during a German advance she came down with typhus, and was lying unconscious among the badly wounded, with a high fever and completely covered by a blanket.
She could have easily died there if my father hadn’t been such a lover of women. But when he saw her long hair sticking out from under the blanket, he simply had to lift it to take a look. And when he saw how beautiful she was, he carried her to safety in a nearby village, where the peasants nursed her back to health.
Six months later, she was back on the front lines, helping to bring injured soldiers back to the hospital. There she instantly recognized one of the badly wounded as the man who had rescued her. My father was just lying there, bleeding to death—there was no blood available for transfusions. But my mother discovered that she had the same blood type, and gave him her blood and saved his life.
Like a fairy tale. Then the war divided them once more.
But they found each other again, and when the war was over, they married. I was born the following year—November 30, 1946.
The night before I was born, my mother dreamed she gave birth to a giant snake. The next day, while she was leading a Party meeting, her water broke. She refused to interrupt the meeting until it was over: only then would she go to the hospital.
I was born prematurely—the birth was very difficult for my mother. The placenta didn’t come out completely; she developed sepsis. Again she almost died; she had to stay in the hospital for almost a year. For a while after that, it was hard for her to continue working, or to raise me.
At first, the maid took care of me. I was in poor health and not eating well—I was just skin and bones. The maid had a son, the same age as me, to whom she fed all the food I couldn’t eat; the boy became big and fat. When my grandmother Milica, my mother’s mother, came to visit and saw how thin I was, she was horrified. She immediately took me home to live with her, and there I stayed for six years, until my brother was born. My parents only came to visit me on weekends. To me they were two strange people, showing up once a week and bringing me presents I didn’t like.
They say that when I was small, I didn’t like to walk. My grandmother would put me in a chair at the kitchen table while she went to the market, and I would be there in the same place when she came back. I don’t know why I refused to walk, but I think it may have had something to do with being passed around from person to person. I felt displaced and I probably thought that if I walked, it meant I would have to go away again somewhere.
My parents’ marriage was in trouble almost immediately, probably even before I was born. Their amazing love story and their good looks had brought them together—sex had brought them together—but so many things drove them apart. My mother came from a rich family and was an intellectual; she studied in Switzerland. I remember my grandmother saying that when my mother left home to join the partisans, she left behind sixty pairs of shoes, taking only one pair of old peasant shoes with her.
My father’s family was poor, but they were military heroes. His father had been a decorated major in the army. My father had been imprisoned, even before the war, for having Communist ideas.
For my mother, Communism was an abstract idea, something she’d learned about at school in Switzerland while studying Marx and Engels. For her, becoming a partisan was an idealistic choice, even a fashionable one. But for my father, it was the only way, because he came from a poor family, and a family of warriors. He was the real Communist. Communism, he believed, was a way through which the class system could be changed.
My mother loved to go to the ballet, the opera, to classical music concerts. My father loved roasting suckling pigs in the kitchen and drinking with his old partisan pals. So they had almost nothing in common, and that led to a very unhappy marriage. They fought all the time.
And then there was my father’s love of women, the thing that had drawn him to my mother in the first place.
From the beginning of their marriage, my father was constantly unfaithful. My mother of course hated it, and soon she came to hate him. Naturally I didn’t know about any of this at first, while I was living with my grandmother. But when I was six, my brother, Velimir, was born and I was taken back to my parents’ house to live. New parents, new house, and new brother, all at the same time. And almost immediately, my life got much worse.
I remember wanting to go back to my grandmother’s house, because it had been such a secure place for me. It felt very tranquil. She had all these rituals in the morning and in the evening; there was a rhythm to the day. My grandmother was very religious, and her entire life revolved around the church. At six o’clock every morning, when the sun would rise, she’d light a candle to pray. And at six in the evening, she’d light another candle to pray again. I went to church with her every day until I was six and I learned about all the different saints. Her house was always filled with the smell of frankincense and freshly roasted coffee. She roasted the green coffee beans and then ground them by hand. I felt a deep sense of peace in her house.
When I started living with my parents again, I missed those rituals. My parents would just wake up in the morning and work all day and leave me with the maids. Plus, I was very jealous of my brother. Because he was a boy, the first son, he was immediately the favorite. This was the Balkan way. My father’s parents had seventeen kids, but my father’s mother only kept photographs around of her sons, never the daughters. My brother’s birth was treated as a great event. I found out later that when I was born, my father didn’t even tell anyone, but when Velimir came into the world, Vojo went out with friends, drinking, shooting pistols into the air, spending lots of money.
Worse still, my brother soon developed some form of childhood epilepsy—he would have these seizures, and everyone hovered around him, giving him even more attention. Once when no one was looking (I was six or seven), I tried to wash him and almost drowned him—I put him in the bath, and he went plop, under the water. If my grandmother hadn’t taken him out, I would have been an only child.
I was punished, of course. I was punished frequently, for the slightest infraction, and the punishments were almost always physical—hitting and slapping. My mother and her sister Ksenija, who moved in with us temporarily, did the punishing, never my father. They hit me till I was black and blue; I had bruises all over. But sometimes they had other methods. There was a kind of hidden clothes closet in our apartment, a very deep and dark closet—the word in Serbo-Croatian is plakar. The door blended into the wall, and it had no doorknob; you just pushed it to open it. I was fascinated with this closet, and terrified of it. I was not allowed to go inside. Sometimes when I was bad, though—or when my mother or my aunt said I’d been bad—they would lock me in this closet.
I was so afraid of the dark. But this plakar was filled with ghosts, spiritual presences—luminous beings, shapeless and silent but not at all frightening. I would talk to them. It felt completely normal to me that they were there. They were simply part of my reality, my life. And the moment I turned on the light, they would vanish.
* * *
My father, as I said, was a very handsome man, with a strong, stern face and a thick, powerful-looking head of hair. A heroic face. In pictures of him from the war he is almost always riding a white horse. He fought with the 13th Montenegro Division, a group of guerillas that made lightning raids on the Germans; it took impossible courage. Many of his friends were killed alongside him.
His youngest brother had been captured by the Nazis and tortured to death. And my father’s guerilla squad captured the soldier who had killed his brother and brought him to my father. And my father didn’t shoot him. He said, “Nobody can bring my brother back to life,” and just let him go. He was a warrior, and had profound ethics about fighting the war.
My father never punished me for anything, never beat me, and I came to love him for that. And though he was often absent with his military unit while my brother was still a baby, Vojo and I gradually became best friends. He was always doing nice things for me—I remember he used to take me to carnivals and buy me sweets.
When he took me out, it was rarely just the two of us; he was usually with one of his girlfriends. And the girlfriend would buy me wonderful presents, which I would bring back home, so happy, and I’d say, “Oh, the beautiful blond lady bought me all this,” and my mother would throw the presents straight out of the window.
My parents’ marriage was like a war—I never saw them hug or kiss or express any affection toward each other. Maybe it was just an old habit from partisan days, but they both slept with loaded pistols on their bedside tables! I remember once, during a rare period when they were speaking to each other, my father came home for lunch and my mother said, “Do you want soup?” And when he said yes, she came up behind him and dumped the hot soup on his head. He screamed, pushed the table away, broke every dish in the room, and walked out. There was always this tension. They’d never talk. There was never a Christmas when anybody was happy.
We didn’t have Christmas anyway; we were Communists. But my grandmother, who was very religious, would have Orthodox Christmas, on January 7. It was wonderful and terrible. Wonderful, because she took three days to prepare an elaborate celebration—special foods, decorations, everything. Yet she had to put black curtains on the windows, because in Yugoslavia in those days it was dangerous to celebrate Christmas. Spies would write the names of families getting together for the holiday; the government would reward them for turning people in. So my family would arrive at my grandmother’s place one by one, and behind the black curtains we would have Christmas. My grandmother was the only one able to get my whole family together. That was beautiful.
And the traditions were beautiful. Every year, my grandmother would make a cheese pie, and she would bake a big silver coin into it. If you bit the silver coin—and didn’t break a tooth—it meant you were lucky. You got to keep the coin until the next year. She would throw rice on us; whoever got the most rice on them would be the most prosperous in the coming year.
What was terrible was that my parents weren’t speaking to each other, even though it was Christmas. And every present I got, every year, was something useful that I didn’t like. Wool socks, or some book that I had to read, or flannel pajamas. The pajamas were always two sizes too big—my mother told me they would shrink after they were washed, but they never did.
I never played with dolls. I never wanted dolls. And I didn’t like toys. I preferred to play with the shadows of passing cars on the wall or a ray of sun streaming through the window. The light would catch the dust particles as they traveled to the floor, and I would imagine that this dust contained little planets with different galactic peoples, aliens who came to visit us, traveling on the rays of the sun. And then there were the glowing beings in the plakar. My entire childhood was full of spirits and invisible beings. It was shadows, and dead people that I could see.
* * *
One of my biggest fears has always been of blood—my own blood. When I was small, when my mother and her sister slapped me, I got blue bruises all over; my nose would bleed constantly. Then, when I lost my first baby tooth, the bleeding didn’t stop for three months. I had to sleep sitting up in bed so I wouldn’t choke. Finally my parents took me to doctors to see what was wrong with me, and they found out I had a blood disorder—at first they thought it was leukemia. My mother and father put me in the hospital; I was there for almost a year. I was six. This was the happiest time of my childhood.
Everybody in my family was nice to me. They brought me good presents for a change. Everybody in the hospital was kind to me. It was paradise. The doctors continued to do tests, and they discovered that what I had wasn’t leukemia, but something more mysterious—maybe some kind of psychosomatic reaction to my mother’s and aunt’s physical abuse. I was given all kinds of treatments, then I went back home and the slapping and beatings continued, maybe a little less frequently than before.
I was expected to endure this punishment without complaint. I think that, in a certain way, my mother was training me to be a soldier like her. She might have been an ambivalent Communist, but she was a tough one. True Communists had “walk through walls” determination—Spartan determination. “As for pain, I can stand pain,” Danica said, in an interview I did with her late in her life. “Nobody has, and nobody ever will hear me scream.” At the dentist’s office, she insisted on not being given anesthesia when she had a tooth pulled.
I learned my self-discipline from her, and I was always afraid of her.
My mother was obsessed with order and cleanliness—in part this came from her military background; in another way, maybe she was reacting against the chaos of her marriage. She would wake me in the middle of the night if she thought I was sleeping messily, mussing up the sheets. To this day, I sleep on one side of the bed, perfectly still—when I get up in the morning I can just flip the covers back into place. When I sleep in hotel rooms, you don’t even know I’m there.
I also learned that it had been my father who named me when I was born, and that he named me after a Russian soldier he’d been in love with during the war; a grenade had blown her up in front of his eyes. My mother resented this old attachment deeply—and, by association, I think she resented me, too.
Danica’s fixation on order moved into my unconscious. I used to have a recurring nightmare about symmetry—it was deeply disturbing. In this strange dream I was a general inspecting a huge line of soldiers, all of them perfect. Then I would remove one button from one soldier’s uniform, and the entire order would collapse. Then I would wake up in a total panic. I was so afraid to break the symmetry.
In another recurring dream, I would walk into the cabin of an airplane and find it empty—no passengers. And all the seat belts were perfectly arranged; each set lying on its seat just so, except for one. And this one disarranged seat belt threw me into a panic, as though it was my fault. In this dream I was always the one who had done something to break the symmetry, and this was not allowed, and there was some kind of high force that would punish me.
I used to think my birth destroyed the symmetry of my parents’ marriage—after I was born, after all, their relationship became violent and terrible. And my mother blamed me, all my life, for being just like my father, the one who left. Cleanliness and symmetry were my mother’s obsessions, along with art.
I knew from the age of six or seven that I wanted to be an artist. My mother punished me for many things, but she encouraged me in this one way. Art was holy to her. So in our big apartment I not only had my own bedroom, but my own painting studio. And while the rest of the flat was stuffed with stuff, paintings and books and furniture, from a very early age I kept both my rooms spartak—Spartan. As empty as possible. In my bedroom, just the bed, one chair, and a table. In my studio, just the easel and my paints.
My first paintings were of my dreams. They were more real to me than the reality I was living in—I didn’t like my reality. I remember waking up, and the memory of my dreams was so strong that I would write them down, and then I would paint them, in just two very particular colors, a deep green and a night blue. Never anything else.
I was very attracted to these two colors—I can’t quite say why. For me, dreams were green and blue. I took some old curtains and made a long robe for myself in those precise colors, the colors of my dreams.
It sounds like a life of privilege, and in a way it was—in a world of Communist drabness and deprivation, I lived in luxury. I never washed my own clothes. I never ironed. I never cooked. I never even had to clean my room. Everything was done for me. All that was asked of me was to study and be the best.
I had piano lessons and English lessons and French lessons. My mother was completely into French culture—everything French was good. I was very lucky, but in all this comfort, I was so lonely. The only freedom I had was freedom of expression. There would be money for painting, but there would not be money for clothes. There would be no money for anything that I really desired as a young girl growing up.
Yet if I wanted a book, I would get it. If I wanted to go to the theater, I would be given a ticket. If I wanted to listen to any classical music, the records would be provided to me. And all this culture was not just provided to me, but pushed on me. My mother would leave little notes on the table before she went to work, saying how many French sentences I should learn, what books I should read—everything was planned out for me.
On my mother’s orders I had to read all of Proust from beginning to end, all of Camus, all of André Gide; my father wanted me to read all the Russians—but even under orders, I found my escape in books. Just as with my dreams, the reality of the books I read was stronger than the reality around me.
When I read a book, everything around me stopped existing. All the unhappiness in my family—my parents’ bitter fights, my grandmother’s sadness at having had everything taken away from her—disappeared. I merged with the characters.
Extreme narratives fascinated me. I loved reading about Rasputin, whom no bullet could kill—Communism mixed with mysticism was very much part of my DNA. And I’ll never forget a strange story by Camus, “The Renegade.” It told of a Christian missionary who went to convert a desert tribe and instead was converted by them. When he broke one of their rules, they cut his tongue out.
I was powerfully drawn to Kafka. I consumed The Castle—I actually felt I lived inside this book. Kafka had such an uncanny way of drawing you into this bureaucratic labyrinth that the protagonist, K., was struggling to negotiate. It was agonizing: there was no escape. I suffered along with K.
Reading Rilke, on the other hand, was like breathing in pure poetic oxygen. He spoke of life in a different way than I’d ever understood it before. His expressions of cosmic suffering and universal knowledge related to ideas I would find later in Zen Buddhist and Sufi writings. Coming upon them for the first time was intoxicating:
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
The only good present my mother ever got me was a book called Letters: Summer 1926, about the three-way correspondence between Rilke, the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva, and Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago. The three had never met, but they adored each other’s work, and for four years they all wrote sonnets and sent them to one another. And through this correspondence, each of them fell passionately in love with the other two.
Can you imagine a lonely fifteen-year-old girl coming upon a story like this? (And the fact that Tsvetayeva and I shared a first name seemed cosmically significant.) Anyway, what happened next was that Tsvetayeva began to feel more deeply for Rilke than she felt for Pasternak, and wrote to him that she wanted to come to Germany to meet him. “You can’t,” he wrote back. “You can’t meet me.”
This only inflamed her passion. She kept writing, kept insisting she was coming to meet him—and then he wrote, “You can’t meet me—I’m dying.”
“I forbid you to die,” she wrote back. But he died anyway, and the triangle was broken.
Tsvetayeva and Pasternak continued to write sonnets to each other, she in Moscow, he in Paris. Then, because she was married to a White Russian who’d been imprisoned by the Communists, she had to leave Russia. She went to the south of France, but then her money ran out and she had to go back to Russia. And she and Pasternak decided that, after four or five years of this passionate correspondence, she would stop in the Gare de Lyon in Paris on her way home, and they would actually meet for the first time.
Both of them were terribly nervous when they met at last. She had an old Russian suitcase with her, so overstuffed with her belongings that it was falling apart: seeing her struggle to close the bag, Pasternak ran off and got a piece of rope. He tied the suitcase shut.
Now they were just sitting there, barely able to speak—their writing had taken them so far that when they actually found themselves in each other’s presence, the emotions were overpowering. Pasternak told her he was going to get a pack of cigarettes—and he went off again, and never came back. Tsvetayeva sat there, waiting and waiting, and finally it was time to board her train. So she took the suitcase fixed with the rope and went back to Russia.
She returned to Moscow. Her husband was in prison; she had no money. So she went to Odessa, and there, desperate to survive, she wrote a letter to the writer’s club, asking if she could be their cleaning woman. They wrote back that her help was not needed. And so she took the same rope Pasternak had used to fix her broken suitcase, and hanged herself.
When I read a book like this, I would never leave the house until I finished. I would just go to the kitchen, eat, and come back to my room, read, go back to eat, come back to read. That was it. For days.
* * *
When I was twelve or so, my mother got a washing machine from Switzerland. This was a very big deal—we were one of the first families in Belgrade to get one. It arrived one morning, shiny and new and mysterious: we put it in the bathroom. My grandmother didn’t trust this machine. She would do the laundry in it, then take it out and give it all to the maid to wash by hand.
One morning I was home from school for the day, and I just sat in the bathroom staring at this fascinating new machine doing its job, agitating the clothes with a monotonous sound—DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN. I was mesmerized. The machine had an automatic wringer and two rubber rollers that turned slowly in opposite directions while the laundry churned in the washer’s tub. I began to play with it, darting my finger between the rollers, then quickly pulling it out.
But then I didn’t pull my hand out fast enough, and the rollers caught my finger and started pulling it in, squeezing it. The pain was excruciating; I screamed. My grandmother was in the kitchen—when she heard me she ran into the bathroom, but with her extremely limited understanding of technology, she didn’t think to simply unplug the machine. Instead, she decided to run down to the street for help. In the meantime, the rollers had pulled in my hand.
We lived on the third floor, and my grandmother was a heavy woman, and running down three flights of stairs and climbing back up again took her some time. When she returned, she had a muscular young man with her; my whole forearm was caught between the slowly turning rollers.
The young man’s understanding of technology was no more advanced than my grandmother’s, and unplugging the washing machine didn’t occur to him, either: he decided to use his muscles to save me. With all his strength, he pulled the two rollers apart—and got such an enormous electrical shock that he was thrown across the bathroom, where he lay unconscious. I, too, fell to the floor, my arm swollen and blue.
At this point, my mother returned, and quickly understood the situation. She called an ambulance for the young man and me, and then she slapped me hard in the face.
* * *
Learning the history of the partisans was very important in school when I was a child. We had to know the name of every battle in the war, and of every river and bridge the soldiers crossed. And of course, we had to learn about Stalin, Lenin, Marx, and Engels. Every public space in Belgrade had a huge photo of President Tito, with pictures of Marx and Engels to the left and right of him.
When you reached the age of seven in Yugoslavia, you became a “Pioneer” in the party. You were given a red scarf to wear around your neck, which you had to iron and always keep next to your bed. We learned to march and to sing the Communist songs and to believe in the future of our country and so on. I remember how proud I was to have this scarf and to be a Pioneer and a member of the Party. I was horrified when I discovered one day that my father, who always had very elaborate hair, was using my Pioneer scarf as a bandanna to train his coiffure.
Parades were very important, and all the children had to participate. We celebrated the first of May, because that was an international Communist holiday, and November 29, which was the day that Yugoslavia became a republic. All the children who were born on November 29 could go visit Tito and get candies. My mother told me I was born on the 29th, but every year I was never allowed to go for candy. She told me I was not well behaved enough for the privilege. It was another way of punishing me. A few years later, when I was ten, I found out I was born on November 30, not the 29th.
* * *
I got my first period at twelve, and it lasted more than ten days—lots of bleeding. The blood kept coming, just this red liquid seeping out of my body and never stopping. With my childhood memory of uncontrollable bleeding and hospitalization, I was so afraid. I thought I was dying.
It was the maid, Mara, rather than my mother, who explained to me what menstruation was. Mara was a kind, round woman, with a big bosom and full lips. And when she so warmly took me in her arms to tell me what was happening with my body, I suddenly had the strange urge to kiss her on the mouth. The kiss didn’t quite happen—a very confusing moment, and the urge didn’t return. But my body was suddenly full of confusing feelings. This, too, was when I began to masturbate, often, and always with deep feelings of shame.
With puberty also came my first migraines. My mother also suffered from them—once or twice a week she would come home early from work and shut herself in her bedroom, in the dark. My grandmother would put something cool on her head, slices of meat or potato or cucumber, and nobody could make a sound in the apartment. Danica, of course, never complained—this was her Spartan determination.
I couldn’t believe how painful my own migraines were: my mother never talked about hers, and of course she never said a sympathetic word to me about mine. The attacks lasted a full twenty-four hours. I would lie in bed in agony, every once in a while running to the bathroom to vomit and shit simultaneously. The retching and shitting only made the pain worse. I trained myself to lie perfectly still in certain positions—my hand on my forehead, or my legs perfectly straight, or my head tilted a certain way—that seemed to alleviate the agony slightly. It was the beginning of my education in accepting and overcoming pain and fear.
Around the same time, I discovered divorce papers under the bedsheets in the cupboard. But my mother and father continued to live together—in hell—for three more years. Sleeping in the same room, the pistols by the bedside. The worst part was when my father would come home in the middle of the night, and my mother would go crazy, and they would start beating each other. Then she would run to my room and pull me out of bed and hold me in front of her like a shield, so that he would stop beating her. Never my brother, always me.
To this day I can’t stand, ever, anybody raising their voice in anger. When someone does that, I just completely freeze. It’s as if I’ve had an injection—I simply can’t move. It’s an automatic response. I can get angry myself, but to scream with anger takes me a long time. It takes an unbelievable amount of energy. I sometimes scream in performance pieces—it’s one way to exorcise the demons. But that’s not screaming at somebody.
My father kept being my friend, and I became more and more my mother’s enemy. When I was fourteen, my mother became a Yugoslav delegate to UNESCO in Paris, and she would have to go there for months at a time. The first time she left, my father brought some big nails into the salon, got on a ladder, and drove the nails into the ceiling. Plaster fell down all over the place! From the nails he hung a swing for my brother and me, and we loved it. We were in heaven—it was total freedom. When my mother returned, she freaked out.
On my fourteenth birthday, my father gave me a pistol. It was a beautiful little gun, with an ivory handle and an engraved silver barrel. “This is a pistol to carry in an opera bag,” he explained to me. I never knew whether he was joking or not. He wanted me to learn to shoot, so I took the pistol out to the woods and fired it a few times—then accidentally dropped it in deep snow. I never found it.
Also when I was fourteen, my father took me to a strip club. It was wildly inappropriate, but I asked no questions.
I wanted to have nylon stockings, a forbidden item as far as my mother was concerned: only prostitutes wore stockings like this. My father bought them for me. My mother threw them out the window. I know he was bribing me—to love him, to not tell my mother about his escapades—but my mother knew everything.
She never wanted my brother and me to bring friends home, because she was deathly afraid of germs. We were so shy that other kids would make fun of us. Once, though, my school had an exchange program with kids from Croatia. And I went to the home of this Croatian girl in Zagreb, and she had the most wonderful family. Her parents were loving with each other and with their children; at meals they all sat at the table, talked together, and laughed a lot. Then the girl came to stay with my family, and it was horrifying. We didn’t talk. We didn’t laugh. We didn’t even sit together. I was so ashamed—of myself and my family, of the complete lack of love in my household—and that feeling of shame was like hell.
When I was fourteen, I invited a friend, a boy from school, to my apartment to play Russian roulette. No one was at home. We did it in the library, sitting opposite each other at the table. I took my father’s revolver from his nightstand, took all the bullets out but one, spun the chamber, and gave the gun to my friend. He pressed the muzzle against his temple and pulled the trigger. We just heard it click. He passed the pistol to me. I put it to my temple and pulled the trigger. Again, we just heard a click. Then I pointed the gun at the bookshelf and pulled the trigger. A huge explosion, and the bullet flew across the room and straight into the spine of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. A minute later, I broke into a cold sweat and couldn’t stop trembling.
* * *
My teenage years were desperately awkward and unhappy. In my mind, I was the ugliest kid in my school, extraordinarily ugly. I was thin and tall, and the kids called me Giraffe. I had to sit in the back of the class because I was so tall, but I couldn’t see the board, so I got bad grades. Finally they figured out I needed glasses. We’re not talking about normal glasses—these were the ugly kind that came from a Communist country, with thick lenses and heavy frames. So I would try to break them by putting them on the chair and sitting down on them. Or I would put the glasses in the window and “accidentally” close it.
My mother would never get me any clothes that other kids had. For instance, it was a time when petticoats were very fashionable—I would have died for one of those petticoats, but she wouldn’t get me one. This wasn’t because my parents didn’t have money. There was money. They had more money than anybody else because they were partisans, they were Communists, they were Red Bourgeoisie. So in order to make it look like I was wearing a petticoat, I would wear six or seven skirts under my skirts. But it never looked right—the different layers of skirts would show, or the skirts would fall down.
And then there were the orthopedic shoes. Because my feet were flat, I had to wear special corrective shoes—and not just any corrective shoes, but horrible, socialistic ones: heavy yellow leather, up to the ankle. And it wasn’t enough that the shoes were heavy and ugly; my mother went to the shoemaker and had him make two metal pieces that fit on the sole, like a horseshoe, so the shoes wouldn’t wear out too fast. So they made a noise—clip-clop—when I walked.
Oh my God, I could be heard everywhere with these clip-clop shoes. I was afraid even to walk down the street. If somebody was walking in back of me, I would step into a doorway to let them pass—I was that ashamed. I especially remember one May Day parade when our school had the great honor to march in front of Tito himself. Our formation had to be perfect—for a month we practiced in the school courtyard to get it exactly right. On the morning of May 1, we gathered to start the parade, and almost as soon as we started marching, one of the metal pieces on the sole of my shoe came off, and I couldn’t walk properly. I was immediately taken out of the parade. I cried with shame and anger.
So if you can imagine—I had skinny legs, orthopedic shoes, and ugly glasses. My mother cut my hair way above the ear and fixed it with a pin, and put me in heavy wool dresses. And I had a baby face with an impossibly big nose. My nose was grown-up but my face was not. I felt hideous.
I used to ask my mother if I could get my nose fixed, and every time I asked, she would slap my face. Then I made a secret plan.
Brigitte Bardot was the big star then, and for me, she was the ideal of sexiness and beauty. I thought that if I could just have a Brigitte Bardot nose everything would be fine. So I came up with this plan, which I thought was perfection. I cut out photos of Bardot from every angle—looking straight at the camera, from the left side, from the right side—to show her beautiful nose. And I put all the photos in my pocket.
My mother and father had this huge matrimonial bed made of wood. It was the morning, when my father liked to play chess in town and my mother liked going out to have coffee with her friends, so I was left alone in the house. I went to their bedroom and decided to spin around as fast as I could. I wanted to fall on the hard edge of the bed and break my nose so I could go to the hospital. I had the photos of Brigitte Bardot in my pocket, and I thought it would be a very small job for the doctors to just fix my nose to look like hers while I was there. In my mind, it was a perfect plan.
So I spun and spun and fell onto the bed, but I missed my nose. Instead I cut myself badly on the cheek. I lay there on the floor, bleeding, for a long time. Eventually my mother came home. She scanned the situation with her severe eyes, then flushed the photographs down the toilet and slapped my face. Thinking back, I’m so grateful that I didn’t manage to break my nose, because I think my face with a Brigitte Bardot nose would be a disaster. Plus, she didn’t age very well.
* * *
My birthdays were sad occasions, not happy ones. First of all, I never got the right present, and then my family was never really together. There was never any kind of joy. I remember on my sixteenth birthday I cried so much, because I realized for the first time that I was going to die. I felt so unloved, so abandoned by everybody. I listened to Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21” over and over—there was some motif in that music that made my soul bleed. And then at one point, I actually cut my wrist. There was so much blood that I thought I was dying. It turned out I’d cut deeply but missed the all-important radial arteries. My grandmother took me to the hospital, where I got four stitches; she never told my mother anything.
I used to write sad poems about death. But death was never talked about in my family, especially in front of my grandmother. We never discussed anything unpleasant in front of her. Years later, when the Bosnian War broke out, my brother went up on the roof of our grandmother’s apartment building and started shaking her television antenna so she would think something was wrong with her TV—which was then taken away for “repair.” For this reason (and also because she never left the house), she never found out about the war.
When I was seventeen, my mother and father threw a party to celebrate their anniversary: eighteen years of happy marriage. They had a dinner at our house and invited all their friends. Then, after everybody left, the drama started again.
My father went into the kitchen to clean up, which was strange, because he never did anything in the kitchen. For some inexplicable reason, he was in the kitchen and said to me: “Let’s wash the champagne glasses. You dry.”
So I took the towel and prepared to dry. But by accident he broke the first glass he washed, and at that moment, my mother entered the kitchen, saw the broken glass on the floor, and exploded. They had just spent several hours pretending to be happy, and she had built up all this anger and bitterness—rage. She saw the broken glass on the floor, and she started yelling at my father about everything: about how clumsy he was, and what a disaster their marriage was, and how many women he’d slept with. He just stood there. And I watched silently, holding this little towel in my hand.
She yelled and yelled, and my father said nothing. He didn’t move. It felt like a Beckett play. After many minutes of her lamenting about all the shit in their marriage, she stopped, because he wasn’t responding. Finally he said to her, “Are you finished?” When she said yes, he picked up the other champagne glasses and, one by one, smashed all eleven on the floor. “I cannot hear this eleven more times,” he said and walked out of the house.
This was the beginning of the end. He left for good soon afterward. The night he left, he came into my bedroom to say good-bye, and told me, “I’m going now, and I’m not coming back, but we will still see each other.” And he went to a hotel and he never came back.
The next day, I was crying so much that I had some kind of nervous breakdown. They had to bring the doctor over to give me something—I couldn’t stop crying. I was out of my mind with grief because I’d always felt love and support from my father. I knew that with him gone, I would be even more alone.
But then my grandmother moved in.
* * *
The kitchen became the center of my world. We had a maid, but my grandmother Milica never trusted her, so she would always come in first thing in the morning and take over. Everything happened in the kitchen. There was a wood-burning stove and a big table where I would sit with my grandmother and talk about my dreams. That was mainly what we did together. She was very interested in the meaning of dreams and read them as signs. If you had a dream that your teeth were falling out but you didn’t have any pain, it meant that someone you knew was going to die. But if you had pain, that meant somebody in your family was going to die. Dreaming about blood meant you would get good news soon. If you dreamed of dying, it meant your life would be long.
My mother would go to work at seven fifteen A.M., and everybody relaxed when she left. And when she came back in the afternoon (two fifteen, on the dot) I’d feel like military control had been reestablished. I was always afraid that I had done something wrong, that she would see I’d moved a book from the left to the right, or the order of our home was somehow broken.
Sitting at our kitchen table once, my grandmother told me her story—she was so much more open with me, I think, than with anybody else.
My grandmother’s mother came from a very rich family, and she fell in love with a servant. This was forbidden, of course, and she was expelled from the family. She went to live with the servant in his village, and they were dirt poor. She had seven children with him, and to make money, she washed clothes. She even went to her own family as a servant, to do their laundry. They gave her a little money, and sometimes some food. But there was very little food in my great-grandmother’s house. My grandmother told me that her mother, out of pride, would always have four pots on the stove, but this was just for appearances, in case the neighbors stopped by. She was only boiling water because there was nothing to eat.
My grandmother was the youngest of the seven children, and very beautiful. And one day when she was fifteen, she was going to school when she became aware of a gentleman—he was walking with another man—looking at her. When she got home, her mother told her to make coffee because there was somebody who was interested in marrying her. This is how these things were organized in those days.
For my grandmother’s family, this gentleman’s interest in her was a blessing—they didn’t have anything, so once she was married there would be one less mouth to feed. Even better, the man was from the city, and also rich—but he was also much older: she was fifteen and he was thirty-five. She remembered making Turkish coffee for him that day, and bringing it to him, her first real chance to see the face of her husband-to-be. But when she served the coffee, she was too shy to look at him. He talked over the marriage plans with her parents, and then he left.
Three months later she was taken from her home to the place where the wedding was to happen, and then, at fifteen, she was married and living in this man’s house. She was still a child; a virgin. No one had ever told her about sex.
She told me what happened the first night, when he actually tried to make love to her. She screamed bloody murder and ran to her husband’s mother—they all lived together—and got into his mother’s bed to hide, saying, “He wants to kill me, he wants to kill me!” And the mother held her in her arms all night, saying, “No, he doesn’t want to kill you; this is not a killing; this is something different.” It was three months before she actually lost her virginity.
My grandmother’s husband had two brothers. One was a priest in the Orthodox Church, the other was in business with my grandfather. They were merchants. They imported spices and silk and other goods from the Middle East; they owned shops, houses, and land and were very wealthy.
My grandfather’s brother the priest eventually became Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Yugoslavia, the most powerful man in the country next to the king. And in the early 1930s, when the country was still a monarchy, Alexander, the king of Yugoslavia, asked the Patriarch to unite the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and the Patriarch refused.
The king invited the Patriarch and his two wealthy brothers to lunch to discuss the issue. They went to the lunch, but the Patriarch refused to change his mind. And the king had the three brothers served food that had crushed diamonds mixed into it. Over the next month, all three, the Patriarch and my grandfather and the other brother, died terrible deaths from intestinal bleeding. And so my grandmother was widowed at a very young age.
My grandmother and my mother had a strange relationship—a bad relationship. My grandmother was angry at my mother all the time, for so many reasons. Before the war, my grandmother, the rich widow, had to go to prison because her daughter, my mother, was such an outspoken Communist; she was forced to buy her way out of jail with the gold she’d put aside. Then after the war, when the Communists took over, my mother, to show her commitment to the Party, had to renounce all her worldly goods—and all the worldly goods of her mother. She actually made a list of my grandmother’s possessions, and gave the list to the Communist Party, because she was such a loyal Communist. This was for the good of the country. So my grandmother lost her shops. She lost her land and her house. She lost everything. She felt deeply betrayed by her own daughter.
And now here she was, with my father gone, living with us. Difficult for her and my mother, but so important for me.
I still remember vividly several things about her. From the age of thirty on, she started setting aside the clothes she wanted to be buried in. Every ten years, as fashions changed, she would change her burial clothes as well. In the beginning it was an all-beige outfit. Then she got into polka dots. Next it was dark blue with thin stripes, and so on. She lived to the age of 103.
When I asked her what she remembered about the First and Second World Wars, she told me the following: “Germans are very correct. The Italians always look for a piano and want to make a party. But when the Russians come, everyone runs away because they rape all the women, young and old alike.” I also remember that when my grandmother flew on a plane for the first time, she asked the stewardess not to seat her next to the window, because she’d just had her hair done and didn’t want the wind to mess it up.
Like many people in our culture at that time, my grandmother was deeply superstitious. She believed that if when you left your house you saw a pregnant woman or a widow, you had to immediately pull a button off one of your garments and throw it away, or bad luck would befall you. But if a bird took a shit on you, it was considered the best luck of all.
When I had exams in school, my grandmother would pour a glass of water over me as I left the house so that I would do well. Sometimes in the middle of the winter, I would be walking to school and my whole back would be soaking wet!
Milica told fortunes with Turkish coffee grounds or with a handful of white kidney beans, which she’d throw into a pattern and then read the abstract images they created.
These signs and rituals were a kind of spirituality for me. They also connected me to my inner life and my dreams. Many years later, when I went to Brazil to study shamanism, the shamans looked at the same kinds of signs. If your left shoulder itches, it means something. Every single part of the body is connected with different signs that allow you to understand what’s happening inside you—on a spiritual level, but also on a physical and mental level.
In my teenage years, though, all this was just beginning to dawn on me. And my gawky body was little else to me besides a source of embarrassment.
I was president of the chess club in my school—I was a good player. And my school won a competition, and I was chosen to receive the award onstage. My mother didn’t want to get me a new dress for the ceremony, so there I was onstage in my orthopedic shoes and fake petticoat. And the official gave me the award—five new chessboards—and as I was carrying them offstage, my big shoe got caught on something and I fell down, the boards flying every which way. Everybody laughed. After that they couldn’t get me out of the house for days. No more chess.
Deep shame, maximum self-consciousness. When I was young it was impossible for me to talk to people. Now I can stand in front of three thousand people without any notes, any preconception of what I’m going to say, even without visual material, and I can look at everyone in the audience and talk for two hours easily.
When I was fourteen, I asked my father for a set of oil paints. He bought them for me, and also arranged for a painting lesson from an old partisan friend of his, an artist named Filo Filipović. Filipović, who was part of a group called Informel, painted what he called abstract landscapes. He arrived in my little studio carrying paints, canvas, and some other materials, and he gave me my first painting lesson.
He cut out a piece of canvas and put it on the floor. He opened a can of glue and threw the liquid on the canvas; he added a little bit of sand, some yellow pigment, some red pigment, and some black. Then he poured about half a liter of gasoline on it, lit a match, and everything exploded. “This is a sunset,” he told me. And then he left.
This made a big impression on me. I waited until the charred mess had dried, and then very carefully pinned it to the wall. Then my family and I left for vacation. When I came back, the August sun had dried everything up. The color was gone and the sand had fallen off. There was nothing left but a pile of ashes and sand on the floor. The sunset didn’t exist anymore.
Later on, I understood why this experience was so important. It taught me that the process was more important than the result, just as the performance means more to me than the object. I saw the process of making it and then the process of its unmaking. There was no duration or stability to it. It was pure process. Later on I read—and loved—the Yves Klein quote: “My paintings are but the ashes of my art.”
I kept painting in my studio at home. But then one day I was lying on the grass, just staring up at the cloudless sky, when I saw twelve military jets fly over, leaving white trails behind them. I watched in fascination as the trails slowly disappeared and the sky once more became a perfect blue. All at once it occurred to me—why paint? Why should I limit myself to two dimensions when I could make art from anything at all: fire, water, the human body? Anything! There was something like a click in my mind—I realized that being an artist meant having immense freedom. If I wanted to create something from dust or rubbish, I could do it. It was an unbelievably freeing feeling, especially for someone coming from a home where there was almost no freedom.
I went to the military base in Belgrade and asked if they could send up a dozen planes. My plan was to give them directions about which way to fly so that their jet trails would make patterns at the sky. The men at the base called my father and said, “Please come and get your daughter out of here. She has no idea how expensive it is to fly jets for her to make drawings in the sky.”
I didn’t stop painting all at once, though. When I was seventeen, I began preparing to go to the Art Academy in Belgrade—you had to go to night school and take drawing classes, to prepare a portfolio to present for admission. I remember all my friends saying, “Why do you even bother? You don’t need to do anything—your mother can just make one phone call and get you in.” That made me so angry, but really I was just embarrassed. What they were saying was true. It made me more determined than ever to establish my own identity.
The night-school classes were in life drawing, and there were nude models, female and male. And I had never seen a nude man. I remember once the model was a gypsy—he was a small man, but his phallus hung to his knees. I could not look at him! So I drew everything except the phallus. Every time the professor would come around and look at my drawing, he would say, “This is an unfinished drawing.”
Once, when I was eleven or twelve, I was sitting on the couch reading a book that I really liked and eating chocolate—my rare moment of happiness was complete. I was sitting there reading and eating, thoroughly relaxed, my legs splayed across the couch cushion. And out of nowhere, my mother came into the room and slapped my face so hard that it made my nose bleed. I said, “Why?” She said, “Close your legs when you’re sitting on the couch.”
My mother had a very strange attitude about sex. She was very worried that I would lose my virginity before marriage. If I got a phone call and it was a male voice, she would say, “What do you want with my daughter?” and slam the phone down. She even opened all my mail. She told me sex was dirty and that it was only good if you wanted to have a child. I was terrified of sex because I didn’t want to have children, which to me felt like it would be a terrible trap. And all I ever wanted was to be free. When I got to art school, everybody in my class had already lost their virginity. Other people went to parties and things, but my mother always demanded that I be home by ten o’clock—even when I was in my twenties—so I didn’t go. I’d never had a boyfriend and I thought something was seriously wrong with me. And now when I look at photographs, I think I looked fine, but back then I thought I was horribly ugly.
I had one kiss when I was fourteen that I don’t count. We were on the Croatian seaside and the boy was called Bruno. It wasn’t even a kiss on the mouth—just a light kiss on the cheek. But my mother saw us and she took me by the hair and dragged me away from him. My first real kiss was later. I had a friend, Beba, who was very beautiful and all the boys were always around her. So she would have all these requests for dates, and most of the time she couldn’t attend to all of them, so she would send me instead. Once she had a date with someone I knew who lived in the building just across the street from me, but she couldn’t go, so she sent me to the cinema where they were supposed to meet to tell him she couldn’t make it. So I went to the cinema and found him and said, “I’m so sorry, but she cannot come.” And he said, “But I have two tickets for the cinema. Do you want to come?” So we saw the movie, and then afterward we went outside in the snow and drank the vodka that he had brought with him. We ended up lying down in the snow and he kissed me. That was my first real kiss. I liked him, but I didn’t sleep with him. His name was Predrag Stojanović.
I didn’t want to lose my virginity to somebody I liked, because I didn’t want to risk falling in love with the first person I had sex with. I wanted to do it with somebody I didn’t care about.
I knew that when a girl slept with a guy for the first time, she was usually in love with him, and that the guy would always leave afterward, and the girl would suffer. I didn’t want any of that to happen to me, so I made a plan: I would look for some guy who was having a lot of sex—who was kind of known for that—and I’d just use him to lose my virginity. Then I would be normal like everybody else. But it had to be on a Sunday, and it had to be ten A.M., so that I could tell my mother I was going to a movie matinee, since she wouldn’t let me go to the cinema in the evening. So I went to the academy and looked around and spotted this one guy who was into partying and drinking. Perfect. I knew that he loved music, so I went up to him and said, “I have the new Perry Como record. Do you want to listen to it some time? I can’t lend it to you but we can listen to it together.” (I actually only listened to classical music at the time, and I’d borrowed the record from a friend specifically for that purpose. Of rock ‘n’ roll I knew next to nothing.)
So the guy said, “Okay. When?” And I said, “How about Sunday?” He said, “Yes. What time?” I said, “Ten in the morning.” He said, “Are you crazy?” So I said, “Okay. Eleven?”
To prepare, I bought Albanian cognac. It’s the worst, cheapest alcohol you can imagine—they make it in the morning and drink it in the evening. That was the joke, anyway. Albanians went to Yugoslavia in those days to buy white bread, because they only had very bad brown bread. Not like healthy brown bread that you can get in the United States, but bread that was brown because it was made from bad wheat. It had an almost sandy taste. They would take one piece of white bread between two pieces of their brown bread and eat it like a cheese sandwich.
So you can imagine what Albanian cognac, which was made from this bad bread, tasted like. I didn’t even drink, but I thought I should bring it to use as a kind of anesthetic.
I went to his house around eleven o’clock and knocked on the door. Nobody answered. I knocked some more, and finally he came to the door, but he was half asleep, like he’d gone to a party the night before and had come home late. And he said, “Oh . . . you’re here. Okay. I’m going to take a shower. You make some coffee.”
While he took a shower, I made some coffee and I put a huge amount of Albanian cognac in it. So we drank the coffee, and I put the Perry Como on the record player, and we sat on the couch, and I literally jumped on top of him. We were hardly undressed when we had sex, and I screamed. He knew then that I was a virgin, and he got so angry that he threw me out of his house. It took me another year to do it properly, and I did it with Predrag Stojanović, who became my first love. But I was proud of myself for getting it out of the way.
I was twenty-four years old. Still living at home with my mother, still required to be home by ten P.M. every night. Still controlled by her completely.
Reprinted from Walk Through Walls © 2016 by Marina Abramovic. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs are courtesy of the author.